Taking Control of Your Run
People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy. -MC
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” ~ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, p. 3)
Mihaly C. (Pronounced, "cheek-sent-me-HIGH-ly") is a Hungarian researcher who spent his early years in an Italian prison during WWII and discovered that intense games of chess could help him enter 'a different reality' even briefly. As a result, he has devoted his life to understanding and articulating happiness. Csikszentmihalyi insists that happiness does not simply happen. It must be prepared for and cultivated by each person to be completely absorbed in an activity, the result of which is a state of consciousness called Flow. The essence of flow is the removal of the interference of the thinking mind, and MC argues that this can absolutely be within the control of every person.
I discovered yoga in 2004 during a particularly dark period in my life that coincided with my move to Hong Kong, a country whose air was so polluted that I would only run outdoors once per week until I left 3 years later. My first ashram was the kind I had made fun of, full of people for whom I had little patience and could not connect with on any level: hippies. People who appeared devoid of ambition. People who spoke gently even in loud places and said things like, "Namaste" with a head nod in casual conversation which struck me as try-hard and totally not genuine. People who looked and spoke like Ellie (no offense, Ellie!). I had tried a few yoga classes in the past and hadn't been impressed; I was lured my first 'real' class with the promise that I wouldn't be allowed to speak to anyone. I vividly remember that beautiful silence, how strongly I wrestled with it, how long it took before I no longer had the urge to check my watch during a 90-minute class (3 months of thrice-weekly classes), the uncontrollable tears I shed the day it happened and the first time could complete an entire class without opening my eyes (19 months later). My ashram was my happy place, a respite from my hectic world where extroverts are promoted and introverts are encouraged to 'evolve'.
When I returned to the US in 2007 I first found an outdoor running path then looked for an ashram. I tried several, none were silent. My former ashram strictly forbade all talking and latecomers were turned away. Here, everyone had their purses handy and their phones out. They brought friends and chatted incessantly. They were openly offended that I wasn't interested in conversation. Yoga stressed me out. I turned into that overly serious yoga person that I used to hate and ended up abandoning it altogether.
MC thinks of yoga as a highly planned activity designed to produce 'flow'. Looking back, that is a totally apt description of why I loved yoga and what it replaced for me when I was forced indoors to train. When my runners beg and plead to keep yoga in their schedules, I struggle to keep my frustration in check. "there is NO way 'yoga' in this country relaxes you. You don't enjoy it. I have no idea why you do it and neither do you, which is why you whine and give me google results why yoga is a good thing to do rather than articulate its importance to you. YOU HAVE NEVER EXPERIENCED FLOW."
Running, the way most coachless, unloved amateurs do it, stresses me out just as much as yoga does. CUAs try to 'zone out' rather than 'get in the zone'. They describe their easy effort days as, "slogging through". This pains me, it doesn't have to be this way. When I encourage you to adopt pre- and post-run rituals, when I encourage you to at least occasionally run solo, when I encourage you to run without earphones and focus on your breathing, when I encourage you to lean into those negative thoughts from which you cannot hide, when you swear that we are different and I just 'don't get it' like an angry teenager, THIS is your coach loving you. I am taking away all interference in order to tee you up for Flow.
Running can provide just as much flow as yoga. It can come on easy effort days as much as on race day. If you cannot judge your effort levels, you will never really be able to pace yourself. If you cannot pace yourself, you will never be able to race to your full potential. Most of all, you will never race to your full potential if you never create a state of Flow in your runs. I promised you back in January that I would spend this cycle teaching you how to race, and it starts with creating a space for Flow to happen. That in turn starts with learning how to meditate.
I strongly recommend downloading an app called Headspace and try it last thing tonight after you lie in bed and first thing in the morning (sitting up, not in bed). Do this every day this week, please. Please tell me, every day, in a short email, what you think of it. Treat it as your training log.
You are coached. You are loved. You are WELCOME.
PS. People who identify as control freaks actually feel out of control, and once they find Flow their need to control things disappears. More on that later!
Coach MK Fleming is the founder of Fitness Protection, LLC where she coaches all kinds of runners for $30 per month and gives marathon plans away for free. Click here to download her Marathon Selection Guide!